Film review: Helvetica

Posted: March 5, 2012 in Uncategorized
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“I get kind of obsessed with things.”

-Michael C. Place

Describing this movie by saying “Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about _____________” seems cringingly obvious. But it’s hard to find a way around doing so, so I’m gonna go for it. Helvetica is not just a film about a font, but also about the people who are fascinated by it.

This movie was suggested to me in a timely manner by a friend of mine who works at an Art Museum. I was talking about how I was getting into information design, and she told me about the movie and said it sounded like something I would like. Just a few weeks later, we hit our unit on typography in Reading Theory and Document Design class. The moment had presented itself: I bought Helvetica on iTunes.

Typeography is a pretty new thing to me. I mean, it’s not entirely new to any of us who grew up with computers with word processing software that let you pick your own font. But actually analyzing typeface and typeface choices, beyond “mixing too many fonts in the same document looks amateurish,” is new to me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned since peeking into the world of typography, it’s that there is an astounding number of typography nerds in the world. And I don’t mean the people who know the difference between serifs and sans serifs–I mean people who have obstinate opinions on things like x-heights and descenders, and feel that fonts are political choices.

This movie is about these people. People who design typefaces, and obsess over them. They all have different work styles, and different opinions about Helvetica, but they share one trait in common: They not only pay attention to details, but they are passionate about them. They fixate on them. They are able to find universes in what the rest of us consider minutiae.

Watching this movie was fun for me as a (former) New Yorker, because so many of the “on the street” shots of Helvetica were familiar to me, from subway signage to Times Square billboards. Having specific examples of “see how much Helvetica there is that you never noticed?” that actually applied directly to me was eye-opening.

However, the movie didn’t go specifically into how Helvetica was constructed. (You would think a feature length film about a font would have time to break it down for us. Do they assume anyone watching this is already enough of a geek that they know already?) So I’m still not 100% sure when I’m looking at it, or when I’m looking at a similar sans-serif. So I’m catching myself walking down the street and tuning my vision to signage, exclaiming not “Ooh, Helvetica!” but “Ooh, that might be Helvetica! Or something like it!”

You may assume that people who fixate on a topic that the man on the street might consider “bland” and “unimportant” would be rather dull to talk to. Quite the contrary! The bread and butter of this film are interviews with extremely varied and lively characters. I didn’t even wait until the film was over before finding and following Erik Spiekermann on Twitter. The one thing that these people have in common is that they are all artists, and all obsessive (as the above quote from Michael Place, one of the interview subjects, demonstrates).

This film was a good sort of introduction to the world of typography for someone like me who understands a little bit about what makes fonts differ from one another, but not about why people get so worked about about it. You get a little glimpse into why it matters to the people it matters to, and maybe just a hint of why it should matter to you, too.

Purchase Helvetica here.


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